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PARASHAT SHOFTIM 5760

 

...put on your beautiful garments, Yerushalayim the holy city, for the uncircumcised and defiled shall no longer enter you. Shake the dust off yourself, (Isaiah 52:1-2). These verses are in today's Haftara.

All over the world, at the ushering in of the Shabbat in synagogues of almost every rite, Jews chant Lecha Dodi. Rabbi Sh'lomo HaLevy Alkabetz, a scholar of note, wrote this hymn in the 16th century. The initial letters of the stanzas form an acrostic of his name 'Sh'lomo HaLevy'. The poem commences by repeating the tradition that the two versions of the fourth commandment 'Safeguard' and 'Remember' [the Shabbat] were pronounced simultaneously. This prepares the reader for the richly nuanced meanings of the poem itself.

It should then not be surprising that layers of meaning can be discerned in Lecha Dodi. At its esoteric level the poem speaks of the Holy One blessed be He and the Divine Presence. The surface meaning welcomes the Shabbat and refers to the redemption of Yerushalayim.

However even if translation is limited to the surface meaning, a difficulty arises. The most popular translators render the stanza hitna'ari mei'afar kumi livshi bigdei tifarteich ami as follows:

'Shake thyself from the dust, arise, put on the garments of thy glory, O my people!' Daily Prayer Book (trans. S Singer, authorized by the Chief Rabbi of Britain, 1890) or 'Shake off your dust, arise! Put on your glorious garments, my people.' Daily Prayer Book (trans. and annotated P Birnbaum, 1977). They have been followed by: 'Shake the dust off yourself, arise, dress up in your garments of glory my people.' The Metsudah Siddur (trans. and commentary A Davis, 1982). Although un progressively more modern English, each of these translations treats 'my people' as the subject of the sentence and 'shake', 'arise' and 'put on' as its verbs. The difficulty is that the Hebrew form of these verbs is feminine, whereas 'my people' is masculine and cannot be their subject. This is because in Hebrew a subject and its verb should agree, i.e. both must be the same gender. It is most unlikely that a Biblical scholar of the stature of Rabbi Alkabetz would break the rule of agreement by making a masculine noun the subject of feminine verbs. Indeed the editors of Bialik's Sefer HaShabbat could not accept this 'error'. They reproduced Lecha Dodi as the very first item in the prayer section of the book, but amended this stanza, parenthetically inserting the word bat ('daughter of') before 'my people', thus making the supposed subject feminine. This rectified the problem of agreement. The Artscroll Siddur provides for two possibilities:

'Shake off the dust - arise! Don your splendid clothes, my people.' The Complete Artscroll Siddur (trans. and commentary N Scherman, 1984).
In the Notes, the comment of Iyun Tefillah is provided as an alternative: 'Jerusalem - your most splendid garment is Israel'. The nusach Ashkenaz edition (though not nusach Sfarad) qualifies this comment as 'novel'. Novel or otherwise, the possibility that the poet intended to say that 'my people' are actually the city's garments has here been made explicit.

The Lubavitch Siddur avoids the problem:

'Shake the dust off yourself, arise, don your glorious garments - my people.'
By using the dash the translator ingeniously retained the ambiguity of the original.

The translation of Rabbi S R Hirsch, the great 19th century scholar and grammarian, renders the passage:

'Shake off your dust, arise, clothe yourself with My people as with the garments of your glory.' The Hirsch Siddur (trans. and commentary S R Hirsch Publication Society, 1969).
Rabbi Hirsch endorses the opinion of the Iyun Tefilla.

So too does the Chassidic rebbe, Rabbi Ch Y Halbersberg (author of Misgeret on the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) in his Siddur Yeshuot Yisrael. In his commentary there he states that the 'garments' are 'my people'.

An examination of the context supports the view that 'my people' are the clothes. The opening phrases of the previous stanza provide the subject of the following five stanzas. 'Sanctuary of the King, regal city' (Yerushalayim) is the subject of our verbs. In Hebrew the noun ir (city) is feminine. As this is the subject, the rule of agreement is satisfied and the 'correction' in Sefer HaShabbat is unnecessary.

Furthermore, as is obvious from the parallel language, these stanzas are paraphrased from the verses in Isaiah, Ch. 52 quoted above and read in this week's Haftara. This is noted in the Siddur Otsar HaT'filot.

In the stanzas that we are looking at, Rabbi Alkabetz is interpreting those verses. He is saying that the prophet is addressing Yerushalayim and describing the people themselves as her garments! So he too addresses Yerushalayim, and the worshippers in the synagogues join him, expressing the hope that she be clothed in the garments of her glory -which are none other than 'my people'. Indeed the term 'my people' may well be an allusion to Rashi's comment to Exodus 32:7 where he writes that 'your people' is the great mixture of people whom Moshe allowed to join the Jewish people without permission from G-d. If this is so then 'My people' means 'G-d's people'. In the The Hirsch Siddur 'My' is spelled with an upper case Em. Be that as it may, these analyses, covering grammar, context, Biblical source, and commentaries, seem sufficient to override the widespread popular translations of Singer and Birnbaum.

In light of the above, we can better understand the image that the passage aims to evoke: It is the people who give a city its character, it is the people who are the clothes of Yerushalayim. Jews from all over the world settle in Yerushalayim, living as G-d's people, traversing the streets of Yerushalayim between home and work, between work and synagogue, hurrying to help a neighbor or to learn Torah; giving the holy city its sublime character on workdays and its serene character on days of rest; it is 'My people' who are the glorious clothes of Yerushalayim.

I will be happy to receive comments on these notes in English on Hebrew grammar related to the week's Parasha.
Good Shabbos Meshullam Klarberg, 35/4 Meshech Chochma, Kiryat Sefer, Israel 71919

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